All The Money We Didn’t Save By Going To China

Things to do in Denver when you’re dead… tired, and have just three hours before your flight leaves: go to a bike shop and look around. Google Maps said there was a shop just eight miles from the airport, so I went to check it out. Turns out that the “shop” in question was actually the factory outlet for Tomasso Bikes.

As far as I could tell, Tomasso operates the same way that Bike Nashbar used to: they have frames built overseas and then they load ’em up with slightly better components than you would get on a “name-brand” bike like Trek or Cannondale. Aluminum Tomassos are made in Taiwan, carbon Tomassos in mainland China. To some degree, quick-bake companies like this have been rendered obsolete by Giant, which owns both the means of Chinese proudction and the means of American distribution. (This is why a Giant is almost always the best deal on a new bike, if you are purely concerned with specs.) Compared to those old Nashbar bikes, however, Tommasos are very handsome. They make a rather striking “hybrid” bike in military green, which was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door.

The fellow who came out to talk to me and show me a few bikes was on crutches, having been hit by a car during a road ride seven weeks ago. He’d gotten a femur nail, so we had a long conversation about that particular surgery and its consequences. I was an experimental recipient of a Grosse-Kempf titanium nail back in March of 1988. Luckily for my new friend, his break was much less severe than mine had been. He’d gone for a short bike ride just six weeks after the nail went in. At that point in my recovery I was still confined to bed 24/7.

Hanging on the wall across from that army-green hybrid bike was a drop-bar roadie, something about halfway between a tourer and a full-bore racer: the Corvo. It has the full Shimano 105 “gruppo”, which is to say that most of the parts on it are supplied by Shimano and that they are all “105” level. When I was a kid, Shimano had just three road-bike gruppos: Dura-Ace on top, 600 Ultegra in the middle, and 105 at the low end. Now there’s Tiagra below 105, and a few cheap-bike-specific gruppos like Sora and Claris. (A full explanation can be found here, if you care.)

“The Corvo is $1,699, which is a ripping deal for a full 105 bike,” my salesman said. By modern standards he’s right. And yet… if $1,699 is what you’d pay for a generic Chinese bike with Shimano 105, how much would you pay for an American-made bike with full 105? Would you be okay with… $1,282?

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The Conservation Of Momentum

This has been up on my Instagram (@jackbaruthofficial) for a few days but I thought I’d share it here in higher-definition form. This was my “progression goal” for last weekend: make it over all eleven box jumps on the “Profile World” flow track. On my first trip here, I made it over nine of the eleven, but I totally “bonked” in the last turn. My bike and I together weigh 281 pounds so it amounts to eleven deadlifts in forty-two seconds while also pedaling.

I’d figured that I would need to spend a month or so doing something differently on the elliptical during the week in order to build the endurance I’d need, but my coach and old friend, Javier Larrea, had a better idea. He re-mapped the line that I use in the beginning of the section. adding an extra jump on the skip-up to the hard uphill left turn. This sounds like it would take more energy than riding it but it actually gives me enough extra momentum to save me two pedals on the way down the second hill, which gives me enough oxygen to pull for the final two jumps. Then he was kind enough to be the camera bike for my run. I actually dropped him a bit in the beginning… there’s something to be said for weight when you’re going down a hill.

My old friend Nick will never realize it but when he died he gave me the final push I needed to start riding again. I don’t have much left in me; too much metal in the left knee and too few ligaments in the right. But I want my son to see me ride with his own two eyes instead of looking at old Digital8 clips. Someday he’ll be forty-five years old and the day may come that he needs a bit of inspiration or motivation to tackle whatever’s ahead of him. I won’t be around to tell him myself. But he’ll remember that his old man was both stubborn and pain-resistant. That goes a long way in this world. It’s not like being handsome or lucky but sometimes it’s enough.

Goodbye To All That

“For a moment I felt an indescribable, painful, and useless longing for myself: then there was ‘he’ alone, der Unbekannte, the Unknown, there was nothing but him… He was the stronger of the two, and I was the mirror.” —Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Franco Moretti, “The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture”

Around the time that the above quote was published, and around the time that I read Moretti’s book for the first time as a dissipated, dispassionate sophomore at university, I received a box from a fellow named Bruce Goin. Bruce was the proprietor of the embarrassingly-named “Badd&Company”, and he was the prototypical fat-white-trash-dad-as-would-be-BMX-mogul that all the Nirvana-listening trail-jumper kids loved to complain about. He was also very close to illiterate; the letter that accompanied the box wouldn’t have passed muster in a grade-school composition class. It made me sniff involuntarily in revulsion; I might that very afternoon have plumbed the depths of the most refined literature, perhaps including the Unbekannte and subtle Rilke himself, so imagine my displeasure at perusing an Olympia-typewriter-generated sheet of paper that contained the memorable all-caps sentence “AT FIRST I THOUGHT YOUR CRAZY BUT THEN I REELIZE THAT YOUR NOT CRAZY IM THE CRAZY ONE.”

Bruce was nobody’s choice for the Social Register, but he was a kind-hearted, decent man. The box was on my doorstep because I’d alerted him to a manufacturing error in his “Badd Stretch XXL”. The “stretch” was the longest BMX frame ever made, twenty-two inches from head tube to seatpost in an era where the second-longest frame, the Free Agent Limo, was 19.75″. An utter revolution in the sport, invented by a 350-pound man who couldn’t ride a bicycle at all because his knees didn’t work. There was a sweet irony in that. The “S&M Holmes” that all the dirt-jumper kids loved, the “rider-owned” miracle bike, was nothing but an angle-for-angle copy of the Free Agent Limo with thicker tubing. It was the “fat dad” who changed the BMX game, not the riders themselves.

I’d been one of the first five or six Stretch customers. For me, it was a revelation as well as a revolution, catapulting me immediately to a pair of wins in my local 17&Over Expert races. However, I’d quickly realized that the brake mount was incorrectly positioned. It worked okay enough with the Dia-Compe side-pull brakes that had been in fashion two years previous, but the Odyssey Pitbull cam-pull would not reach to all possible wheel positions. Bruce hadn’t caught it, his framebuilder hadn’t caught it. But I’d caught it. I wrote him a letter, suggesting a different set of measurements for the tubing. He read the letter. Did the measurements. Realized his mistake. And sent me a double gift: a brand-new frame made to my specs, and permission to sell the old one rather than return it. With this generous action, he both funded a spring’s worth of local racing for me and put me on the frame that I would use for most of my (admittedly dismal) professional cycling career.

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Vignette: The Author Takes A Stand With His Fellow Young Riders Against Those Lame-Ass Old Millennials

Saturday was the third time, and the third weekend in a row, that John and I have gone to Ray’s MTB park in Cleveland. He’s progressing in rapid fashion. I’m doing okay, as well. I managed to clear the first nine jumps of the “Profile World” section in a row; there are two jumps after that but I’m too God-dammed tired to get over them. After years of putting up pretty good numbers on elliptical machines and treadmills I’d fooled myself into thinking that I was in good cardiovascular shape despite being overweight. Lifting 275 pounds of bike and rider into the air nine times in quick succession will cure you of those delusions. Even the teenagers are panting when they finish. Only my son can ride “Profile World” three or four times in a row without stopping; as pretty much the only seven-year-old to wander outside the easy stuff, his energy amazes everyone.

We warm up at the novice section, as you can see from John’s handlebar-mounted GoPro footage above — watch it in 1080p! Periodically, a group of twentysomething-to-thirtysomething mountain bikers will leave the dedicated cross-country trails and arrive to try their hand at the short drop-in and small box jumps. They show up, and they leave, in packs. Very few of them, it has to be said, can ride for shit despite their $5,000 bikes and carefully-chosen sporting-wear ensembles. John’s faster through the boxes than the vast majority of the “grownups”; John’s father, despite his sallow complexion, labored breathing, and unflattering sweat stains, is on another planet entirely.

The novice section can also be ridden backwards, if you want to use the roll-in as a vert launch. Some of the teenaged BMX riders like to do it that way so they can practice fly-out stuff like 360s and tire-grabs. They’re very careful around John and nothing even remotely worrisome has happened, so I don’t care that they aren’t “following the arrows”. This past Saturday, as I sat there catching my breath, one of those kids happened to be riding in the wrong direction out of the roll-in when a group of brightly-colored mountain bikers showed up, moving fast in a tightly-bunched single-file line.

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Still They Ride

“So if Nick hadn’t died,” my son said as I raised his leg off the bench at Ray’s and slipped on the ankle guard, “then it would have been me, you, and him here today. But now, it’s just us.”

“That’s right,” I replied.

“But he would want us to ride here anyway.”

“Yes.”

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Nicholas Michael Pearson, 1969-2017

I came back from Sebring on Monday night, set my phone down, and started writing a few things for the upcoming week. When I looked at my phone again it was blinking furiously with messages from people trying to reach me: via Instagram, through my brother, through mutual friends. I called one of them back. “There’s no easy way to say it,” he told me. “We lost Nick tonight.”

My God, I thought, some idiot killed him in his own car. Nick was in the process of trying to sell his one-owner 2004 SRT-4. Since he’d never harbored any ill will towards anyone, Nick always assumed the same of others. He must have let some kid test-drive the 400-horsepower Neon on those Kentucky backroads. Must have gone with him to explain how the car worked. Things must have gone wrong. For a moment, I fervently hoped that the driver had suffered unimaginable pain before dying himself.

But it wasn’t so. Nick had been training for the next BMX race on his rollers, right next to his wife on her elliptical machine, when the heart attack happened. He didn’t make it to the hospital.

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Like A (Flightless) Bird

Just an update on my supremely expensive and self-indulgent recherches du temps perdu. Took the Master Cruiser out last night. Was able to easily make a 14″ bunnyhop. That’s pretty lousy by my pre-middle-age standards, but given the fact that I’ve broken ten bones and been operated on three times since January of 2014, I’ll take it. Those of you who want some context for this can click on the jump and see the 32-year-old me doing the same thing.

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Suddenly It’s 1986!

I’ve been putting bikes together since I Vise-Gripped brother Bark’s Huffy Stu Thomsen into adjustment thirty-two years ago. So it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit that it took me the best part of an hour to assemble my 1986 Haro Lineage Master Cruiser using a variety of primarily automotive tools. I don’t know what happened to all of my bike stuff in the past ten years. The good news is that I was able to find the two really expensive but almost necessary items that made adjusting the rear U-brake less of a chore — my cable cutter and third-hand tool that I bought from Park Tools during the (only) Clinton Administration.

The Master Cruiser (as opposed to the Master Compressor, which is a Jaeger LeCoulture watch costing between five and hundred times as much as this bike) is a deliberate historical fabrication. The first skatepark-oriented 24-inch Haro was the Nyquist X24 Backtrail. I bought one in 2001 and rode it almost every day for about a year. I remember it very well because while I was riding it at the skatepark in Lancaster, Ohio after work one afternoon I hung up the back wheel on the coping of a seven-foot quarterpipe. I lost both feet and tumbled to the asphalt, ringing my bell hard enough to taste colors and putting a sprain in my left ankle that never really went away.

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“The Church Gap”

I remember Jimmy LeVan very well. He and I raced Superclass together at the Louisville BMX track between 1991 and 1994. He was a natural talent, but he was also heedlessly courageous and thoroughly devoted to his craft. Somewhere in my basement is one of the first twenty or so T-shirts that S&M bikes made for him. It was yellow, with a can of Jif on the front that had been redrawn to say “Jim”.

He was braver than I was. Not just because he would try stuff that was obviously stupid and/or risky, but because he lived the BMX lifestyle when I was too much of a coward to join him. While I sat in 400-level classes debating philosophy and poetry, he was on the road, sleeping in a car, doing odd jobs or even panhandling for gas money, traveling the country and riding for the sheer joy of it. I closed my mail-order bike shop on my father’s orders and got a real job, working for Ford Credit. Jimmy started a stunted stub of a BMX brand (Metal Bikes) and toured the world promoting it by doing the stunts and the gap that nobody else would do.

In the video above, you can see Jimmy making “The Church Gap” in Austin. Click the jump to see somebody trying to imitate him, and failing…

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Suddenly It’s 1978!

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I don’t think of myself as a lucky person — too many broken bones and too many outsized consequences for small mistakes — but sometimes I do have fate on my side. Here’s an example: About 72 hours ago, somebody listed an old bike for sale on Pittsburgh’s Craigslist. I was sitting around Thursday night when I was struck with a sudden desire to search for this particular bike. Never before in my life had I searched for this bike, and I mean never. My search brought up the bike, which had been listed about four hours previously. As it happened, this weekend was the one weekend I planned on having open between now and May, so I was able to go to Sewickley, PA and get it for the considerable sum of $140.

It was a remarkable coincidence that somebody would list this bike within driving distance and I’d have the idea to look for it, all on the same day. So what did I get?

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